Fort Worth — Somewhere in the heartland, VFW Post 5470 is closing forever, and The Pin-Up Girls are onstage for one last show. They aren’t those pin-up girls — not the movie stars or wispily clad Vargas cuties of classic WWII pinups — but a trio of hometown gals (and a brother “subbing” just for tonight) singing their hearts out in honor of “the little guys,” the men and women who’ve put their lives on the line in our foreign wars for the past century and more.
What’s more, we know some of those veterans are in the audience, both at the fictional Post 5470 and in the real seats at Casa Mañana’s Reid Cabaret Theatre. Pin-Up Girls calls itself “a musical love letter,” and so it is, full of nostalgia and pride for all who served and for their loved ones who stayed home — worrying, waiting, and writing back.
The central plot point couldn’t be simpler: A basement clean-out of the old VFW post uncovers a stash of wartime letters from World War I to the present, left for safekeeping — where better? And the “Pin-Up Girls” (nicknamed by one singer’s grandpa when he hired them as sixth-graders) take those letters and use them to make the times, the stories, and the people come alive for us.
Right from the start, this show stands a darned good chance of plucking a heartstring (or three). Pin-Up Girls takes advantage of our built-in good will with a clever (and sometimes unexpected) lineup of songs, outstanding voices, and an easy, conversational way of swinging from sad to comic and back again…just like real life.
This is hardly a hard sell: so many of us walk around with a personal VFW post tucked in our heads anyway, peopled by family, friends, colleagues, neighbors and church friends who have been to war all around the world. We’re more than ready to listen, enjoy, and remember.
Local producer Claudia Stepp commissioned The Pin-Up Girls and worked steadily to get it onstage, collecting talent as she went along. The show’s lively script is from writer/director James Hindman (Pete ‘N’ Keeley, Popcorn Falls, Young Abe Lincoln); the evocative song list was compiled (with plenty of helpful suggestions, we’re sure) by composer/music director Jeffrey Lodin (Popcorn Falls, Young Abe Lincoln, A Letter to Harvey Milk); and the multi-style choreography is from Eugenio Contenti. A New York City workshop of the show found singer/actors Jillian Louis and Gina Milo, and cast members Jess de Jong and Barrett Riggins signed on a bit later.
And every one of them has a way with a song.
Pin-Up Girls draws from every part of the 20th-century American songbook, from 1911’s “Oh, You Beautiful Doll” to new material composed for the show by Lodin, whose engaging piano arrangements feel spot-on for the emotions of each song. Numbers include some classics — the ‘40s “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” — and some surprises. Who’d expect a Beyoncé song to fit in — but here’s “Single Ladies” at the end of a flirty letter a girl sends to her soldier, chronicling Every Single Proposal her friends have had from their guys overseas. Newest on the list of popular songs might be the haunting “On a Bus to St. Cloud,” written in the mid-‘90s by Gretchen Peters and recorded by Trisha Yearwood.
De Jong’s character Dana delights with a quiet, guitar-strumming version of “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter,” a ‘30s song hit for Fats Waller. Louis plays group leader Leanne, and her bright, warm vibrato is perfect for the 1913 Jolson hit “You Made Me Love You.” It’s Leanne’s heartfelt response to the letters her grandfather sent home during World War II. Milo’s flirty Megan character swivels her hips as ‘60s pin-up girl Ann Margret in a sizzling bit of “Ain’t She Sweet” … then settles down for a tender “Someone to Watch Over Me.” And Riggins’ character Joel (Leanne’s little brother, clearly the class clown) has particular fun with a rap-ish version of Irving Berlin’s WWI comic Army-camp song “Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning.”
The show’s letter motif runs from start to finish, with multiple reprises of “Please Mr. Postman” and the tender “P.S. I Love You” — not the Beatles song you’re thinking of, but the ‘30s ballad with Johnny Mercer’s lyrics. There’s a slight misfire here and there: we aren’t sure about using “Abba Dabba Honeymoon” to commemorate the many on-the-fly weddings that take place in wartime, but it’s giddy enough to get by.
On the whole, though, The Pin-Up Girls is a thoroughly pleasant show in a convivial cabaret setting — full of spirit and music, refreshingly snark-free, blowing a big red-lipstick kiss to our overseas veterans, then and now.